Climate Change: Sell the Sizzle

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 1.27.16 AMBy Felicity Carus

The day before the Sustainable Brands 2014 conference in London opened, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its first major report since 2007. At 1,552 pages long, the Synthesis Report is indigestible to all but the most die-hard climate activist, policy wonk or scientist. But its central message boils down to this: We must quit fossil fuels altogether by 2100 or face catastrophe.

This is not news people want to hear; not even sustainability professionals who have flown in from Hong Kong or Israel want to hear it. So, how can we expect the man or woman zooming past the Lancaster Hotel next to Hyde Park to get out of their cars and onto the bus, particularly when it’s raining in London?

The fact is that climate catastrophe is not even news at all. Sure, the world is a different place since the last IPCC report came out in 2007: The U.S. has a climate-changing president; the financial crisis took a chunk of money out of everyone’s pocket; and the momentum for action at the Copenhagen in 2009 has run out of steam despite the frenetic pace of adoption for solar and wind.

But the storytellers — the journalists, the brand strategists and sustainability marketers in this particular sustainability narrative – have failed to connect consumers enough to inspire engagement with this crisis on any significant scale to make a real impact.

Today’s workshop led by Daianna Karaian, senior brand strategist at Futerra, examined effective storytelling because “the connection with brands and consumers was often broken.”

“We look at our customers through market research or reams of data – that’s massively important, but at the end of the day it’s even more important to remember that our customers are real people, just like us.”

Futerra are the folks who brought us Sell the Sizzle a founding theory that if you create a vision of the future that is better than the present, people will act on climate change without question. Asking people to give up things that are of value to them without a better solution is not going to change the world or our regard for it.

Nike gets it right because they sell a functional product, an experience that makes someone feel good about themselves if they reach a new PB, and organised events makes people feel connected with a wider community, she said.

“The best way to connect is to find what’s in it for them, by finding the importance of sustainability issues for your business and what’s actually important and make those connections that are really going to resonate and connect in that sweet spot between sustainability and customer benefit.”

Stars Wars makes a good allegory most people can understand: good vs bad, with a mentor who provides a gift to help the hero overcome a challenge or crisis. But brands should never become the hero, she warned. If you think about it, when a brand becomes the ‘centre’ of a story, it’s usually for negative reasons.

But like all good stories, there should be a moral at the finale – a universal truth that everyone can connect with, eg it’s what’s inside that counts, to succeed we must first believe that we can or people are afraid of change but things always change.

When storytelling goes right, we get results like the Meet the Superhumans advert for the Paralympic Games in 2012 and the Chain of Good advertising Innocent fruit juice.

Storytelling can delight and amuse audiences while carrying serious messages. Follow the Frog from the Rainforest Action Network and the Lazy Environmentalist from WWF Canada do so to good affect.

But the oxytocin feelgood chemicals can go too far and make audiences (at least some of them) feel manipulated. Delegates were only too happy to watch a heart-warming tale about a father coming to terms with his daughter’s sexuality and the ‘journey’ it has taken him only, until the end credit rolled onto the screen for expedia. Some people felt cheated and emotionally manipulated.

Such is the power of storytelling that we need to take care with the audience’s trust, to remain authentic and not stray too far from the core values of a product.

Sustainability story telling has got caught in a rut, said James Payne, strategy director at Given, a marketing agency in London that has developed a “substance wayfinder” for brands.

But did the Futerra storytelling process work? Well, the group I was with managed to turn the International Youth Hostels — a chain of 3,500 low-budget locations in 90 countries — into an opportunity to offer life-changing experiences that connect people with local communities and release them from day-to-day isolation without costing the earth (to them or the environment).

A delegate from BP challenged the group to make that fit for his company. Well, it’s more of a challenge certainly. But one which storytellers both sides of the newsdesk must tackle with greater intensity and imagination than ever before.

Certainly the IPCC could  improve the way it connects with its ‘customers’, ie earthlings.

“Climate change in some ways is like the financial sector where there’s a lot of jargon, there’s a lot of technical terms and there are a lot of big, system wide conversations,” said Karaian in later conversation.

“It’s really difficult for just the normal person on the street to connect that with their own lives and what choices they can make. Not just at home to do things like turn off the lights or insulate their homes, but also what they can do as voters and if we all came together as individuals and looked at what was really important to us and the kind of life that we want to be living 10, 20, 50, 100 years from now.”

Let’s hope by the time the sixth IPCC report arrives, the storytelling will be powerful enough to prompt action.

Image credit: Sustainable Brands

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